The process of naming something is of crucial importance, for in many ways that name defines the life of what that thing is to become. Individual names, brand names, band names -- all of these rely on the few letters sculpted into being to describe what you have created. After numerous listens to Karsh Kale's latest album, Cinema (Six Degrees Records), I'm certain that he nailed the name perfectly, with all the elegance as well as the trappings that implies.
Spending much time of late on the Bollywood circuit alongside the innovative Midival Punditz, Kale has helped usher in a harder, more electronic modernity into the pop-glazed world where AR Rahman hires Pussycat Dolls to engineer million-dollar smashes. You can literally feel the big-screen influence all over this record; fortunately that has nothing to do with gratuitous production and overly dramatic girl bands. The seven-minute title track offers an insightful gaze into the amalgam of universes that Kale has stitched together: the poetic wonderment of a Bansuri flute quickly opens into a guitar-drenched beat, somewhat reminiscent of an older track, "Break of Dawn." Mantra singer Vidhi Sharma weaves inside the rhythm beautifully before a cascade of violins emerge, which soon give way to an isolated bass line. The low end trucks along under a feverish pitch of percussion. The perfect balance between hard and throbbing and delicate, airy is found.
Mostly Kale heads to hard, however. "Mallika Jam" features Ibiza techno singer Anne Rani, who has a gorgeous voice yet usually is featured on mediocre, generic progressive dance music. She should stick to Kale: her voice sails across the bouncing industry of his guitar-driven beats. Guitars make a huge cameo on Cinema; he may have written many of these songs on an acoustic, but on the final version they shred. For the most part, it works, though the retro '80s vibe does become staid. Most elements works well on "Turnpike," for example, especially longtime collaborator Vishal Vaid's heart-raising vocals. I'm just not sure how that kick drum sneaked in there; at first I'm waiting for A Flock of Seagulls to begin. Vaid is vindicated on the closing "Sunbeam," an upbeat, hopeful number that reminds one of a song from the distant past, "Deepest Blue."
The track that just won't get out of my head is also a throwback of sorts, sneaking into the drum 'n bass territory that helped Kale make his mark. "Avalanche" also features a longtime friend and singer, Shahid Siddiqui, whose vocals over the piano-led melody are meticulous and brilliant. During moments like these, when Kale's precise production ear and masterful hands strike that magic balance between heavy and light forces, his genius is apparent -- consider the J Dilla-esque hip-hop base on "Absence." For the most part, Cinema strikes the balance perfectly. The depth and diversity of this 13-song catalog is certain to be chosen time and again for years to come, even if you don't watch each flick every time you put on the headphones.
One of my favorite takes on a Karsh Kale song is the Dub Mix by Desert Dwellers, a trio of electrorganic musicians spread across the Western United States. Originally conceived by Amani Friend and Treavor Moontribe, fellow juggernaut Rara Avis joined in to produce three of the best downtempo South Asian electronica records in existence. For Kale, they added a spacious, patient depth that hadn't existed, while laying a punchy hip-hop beat for Vishal Vaid and Iswhat? emcee Napoleon Maddox to float and trounce over. Turns out the trio's fourth/fifth pseudo-releases (a two-record compilation of outtakes from the first three sessions), The Lost Grooves and The Lost Mixes (White Swan), turn out not to just match the initial records, but prove to be even better.
I attribute it to time and growth. How often do we reflect upon a body of work we've created and wish we could tweak it just so subtly (or rip the blasted thing to pieces and start again)? All is possible in this digital age. I would never suggest forgetting the first three albums; they're still on heavy rotation, when I need that kind of lift. These two new ones are just that much more refined, allowing plenty of time for the downtempo (and few midtempo) tracks to germinate and bloom. The Cave Drums Mix of "You Can See Forever" takes the original non-percussion mix and adds bountiful drums that echo down the rhythm. The Nomad Dub Mix of "Snake Charmer," one of the band's harder edges, smoothes out the palate of percussion, boosting the melodic elements, resulting in a more sensuous, emotive journey, without losing the sense of urgency of the original.
Perhaps my two favorites are the most organic: a reworked "Moonlit Horizons (Acoustic Vox Mix)" in which the oud and vocals have more room to flex and subdue, and the breathtaking six-minute, forty-two second voyage that is "Snake Charmer (Satori Clouds Mix)." Forgoing beats and leaning back on flute and drone, a yogic traveler calls this Savasana. The pictures painted during such reflective moments are as beautiful as any this talented trio has thus far dreamed.